Saturday, May 29, 2004

On the Origin of the Tin Foil Hat

"I deeply resent the way this Administration makes me feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist."
-Teresa Nielsen Hayden

Gary Indiana, at the Village Voice feels the same way. Posted on the web is part one of his three part essay, Paranoid Nation: No Such Thing as Paranoia, which is a fascinating look at our national paranoia and how the professional Conspiracy deniers are sometimes as pathological as the most extreme true believers.

Mr. Indiana doesn't fault Bush for the fact that once levelheaded and skeptical folk now find themselves doing the dreaded geopolitical calculus and coming up with weird coincidences. As he points out, it's mostly the fault of historians, doing the powerful elite's work for them:

While it is easy to distinguish a belief that aluminum foil wrapped around one's head filters out alien brain waves from rational but dissident ideas, some modern writers on conspiracy theory tend to conflate nonconformity with the most bizarre and cognitively defective extremes of it. So-called "consensus historians," following the lead of Richard Hofstadter's famous 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," have effectively pathologized any suspicion of active conspiracies, however defined, into a synonym for "nut job" in public discourse.

Once anyone with an idea more colorful than the ochre melange found on the front page of any newspaper is defined, a priori as a nut job, the idea is tainted. Even when they are, much later, proven to be true. "The necessary proof of such a conspiracy, if we choose to call it that, often turns up 25 or 50 years after the fact, when the release of classified documents churns up no public outcry or indictments" (Indiana). This makes it fiendishly difficult to convince most Americans that there are really some valid conspiracies that we should be concerned about. Since their parents or grandparents were already told "The Truth" (at least the Warren Commission version of it) these slippery and confabulated facts have entered the family history and to contradict them now is to invalidate grandpa's life.

"Where were you when Oswald Shot Kennedy?" was the defining question of my parent's generation. Everyone remembers where they were when Kennedy was shot. But by whom, no one really knows for sure. And no one really cares now, forty years later.

The problem of course is only made worse by the fringe thinkers who have spent the last forty years concocting one lurid scheme after another to try and explain what did really happen, sometimes with far less evidence than the Warren Commission, sometimes with far more, but always with the stench of incredulity clinging to their ink stained hands and jittery, coffee colored thoughts. How did this, "monumental apathy and programmed ignorance" come to dominate the landscape of conspiratorial thought? Mr. Indiana (and others) suggest that it is the grandstanding of one tweedy intelectual, Richard Hofstadter, whose 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," set the attitude for the next four decades:

Hofstadter's essay, written in the aftermath of the McCarthy witch hunts and the Kennedy assassination, with an eye on the then marginal but scary realm of right-wing plot-weavers, has been eerily assimilated by a certain idling pedantry, which rummages through the historical debris of arcane conspiracist subjects (the Knights Templar, Jesuit intrigues, Freemasonry, the Illuminati, alien abductions, the Rothschilds, the Bilderberg meetings, the Knights of Malta), often recounting the same narratives at numbing length, with little fresh insight. Only a few contemporary writers drastically depart from Hofstadter's historical itinerary, or his parochial vision of America as a "pluralist democracy" whose institutional framework is essentially benign and immutably fair, rational, and systemically mistrusted only by paranoid schizophrenics. "One need only think of the response to President Kennedy's assassination in Europe to be reminded that Americans have no monopoly on the gift for paranoid improvisation," Hofstadter declared, 15 years before the U.S. House of Representatives' Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that Kennedy's murder was indeed the result of a conspiracy.

Hofstadter's prescience is amply evidenced in Michael Barkun's A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (2003). Barkun has ingested Hofstadter's imperious tome whole, and his book does little more than regurgitate its polemical eurekas. Barkun informs us that the 'essence of conspiracy beliefs lies in attempts to delineate and explain evil.' Ergo Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and most other organized religions qualify as conspiracy beliefs, though Barkun neglects to say so. Barkun identifies three principles 'found in virtually every conspiracy theory,' to wit: Nothing happens by accident. Nothing is as it seems. Everything is connected. Clearly Freud, Plato, Leibniz, and Einstein all suffered from at least one symptom of conspiracism; fortuitously, without mentioning any of them, someone has finally exposed these thinkers as mentally ill.

The end result is that the general public only trusts information that come from the Experts, except that the Experts all work for the Conspiritors. And those of us who still posess critical thinking skills are left with doubt, cinicsm and a desire to find out What's Really Going On but without the means to discover that slippery truth.

So now, we're all nutbar conspiracy theorists, finding connectivity and conspiracy in what we are told, time and again (by the handful of media outlets owned by rich white men who are friends with the powers that be) that all the world is nothing but unrelated events; that they seem related and interconnected is merely coincidence. Surely that and nothing more.


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